Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Wrap-Up

Winter break has been a lovely and much-needed respite from teaching.  My husband and I spent Christmas with my family in Northern California. We ate, shopped, got caught up on movie watching, and spent lots of quality time with each other before things get busy again.

One of the best things about visiting the Bay Area during the holidays, though, is getting to see old friends. Facebook and email have made it easy to stay in touch, but there really is no substitute for actual face-to-face time with people you don't see too often. One such meet-up was with my college friend, Joe. Joe is a genius in my eyes and does amazing work with Apple. He has also been one of my biggest supporters as an educator, and I'm incredibly thankful for that.

As a prototype developer, Joe told me he has had to learn to "fail quickly." It's definitely something I've been trying to teach my students, but it's really stuck with me as I begin to think about the New Year. 2012 was a year of discovery, risk, and incredible highs and lows. I'm proud of what was accomplished in the last 12 months, but I am beginning to see that working through my failures was what ultimately helped me feel successful this year.

So, with that, I'm making the decision to "fail quickly" (and with grace) in 2013. Having this mindset makes the New Year seem less daunting and more adventurous as I face some pretty big projects in the next few months. I'm eagerly anticipating all that 2013 has in store, and am ever thankful for the support from my family, friends, colleagues, and PLN on Twitter.

Wishing you and yours a Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Have you ever had a really crazy idea? One that seems so preposterous it can't be done? One that becomes so ingrained in your thoughts it keeps you awake at night? One that itches to be executed and brought to life?

For me, this idea was TEDxElementary.*

The idea of a TED-style conference for elementary-aged students emerged from an amalgamation of the right people with the right thoughts in the right place at the right time. TED speakers are considered among the most innovative and highly regarded thinkers in the world, which is exactly why we knew it was going to work. The purpose of the conference would be to give young students an opportunity to simulate dialogue within their community on meaningful issues facing them as 21st century learners. Through the process, they would be able to see themselves as part of a larger global picture and understand that their voice is a valid and important part of their community.

After a few bumps in the road, kinks in the plan, and unpreventable outside events, TEDxElementary finally came to fruition this past Tuesday. And it was amazing. My students presented ideas on how they'd change and improve school. They spoke openly and honestly to their audiences with utmost conviction and confidence. Their ideas reflected a need to feel engaged in school and a desire to make healthy lifestyle choices. Some definite themes around technology, school lunch, playground equipment, and making responsible earth-choices emerged. I am proud of the time and effort they put into their pieces, and the end result was an unforgettable and extremely powerful event.

The biggest lesson I learned through this project was the necessity, importance, and ultimate difficulty in "letting go." I'll be the first to admit TEDxElem was my dragon project. It was an idea I clung to, and one I desperately wanted to succeed. There came a point when I realized I had to let go and trust that things were going to be okay, however they were supposed to be okay. I had to let go of preconceived outcomes and expectations in order for this project to breathe and grow organically. I had to let go of my idea and trust it with my students so they could make it their own. Executing this idea was not easy, but the best things in life are worth fighting for. It took courage to move forward and keep moving forward. But it was so worth it.

Through this project, I helped my students find and capture their voice. I provided encouragement and support when they thought it was too hard, and helped them start some much-needed conversations within our school community. In return, they helped me see the world in a new light and push me to become a better educator. My students are such inspiring young people and I have no doubt that they will one day change the world.

I look forward to our next round of TEDxElem in the spring!

*This project is not affiliated with TEDx officially. Maybe one day.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Last week, one of my table groups was having a big problem working together on a project.
Their arguing prevented them from completing work and caused a lot of hurt feelings. Their disagreements were caused by a number of things, from excessive chatting to miscommunication. When their attempts at problem-solving failed, I decided to spend some extra time with them during our afternoon table meetings to help them make sense of their issues and come up with some creative solutions.

As a group, we decided that arguing and using a disrespectful tone of voice were the biggest problems they were facing. We talked about the importance of communicating effectively, compromising during team tasks, and picking our battles. We brainstormed respectful phrases they could say in disagreement, and even decided on a "code word" to use when things were starting to spiral downward. They settled on "bacon." The rest of the class congratulated the table for persevering through a tough time and being creative problem-solvers.

Cut to the following Monday morning: I'm teaching a minilesson and a situation breaks out in the back of the room between a small group of girls peer-editing. Their voices are beginning to rise and tempers are starting to flare. I do my best to remain calm and remind myself to let them try to work it out before intervening. After a few deep breaths I decide to step in. Just then a small voice in the back of the room squeaks, "Bacon!" and the entire room erupts into laughter. It was perfect comedic timing and exactly what the situation needed. The girls take a deep breath, smile at each other, and continue in their task.

Our classroom is truly a community, and we routinely work hard to make it the best place for us to learn. That morning, laughter helped to build our classroom community in a way that no game or team-building activity ever could. It helped ease tension and put perspective on a relatively minor problem, and reminded us that we're a much better group of people when we communicate and work together to support one another in our learning.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


It's nearing the end of the day and one of my students approaches me with a gleam in her eye.

"Uh, Mrs. S.?" she asks. "You know tomorrow's Friday, right?" I nod and think to myself, Boy, do I ever! She continues, "...and you know what that means? You the end of the day? Tomorrow? On Friday.?" Her words are rushed and the intonation of her voice keeps going up at the end of each phrase.  A smile spreads across my face as I listen. Of course I know what tomorrow brings because my students have been talking about it all week long - The Smackdown!

Not sure about a smackdown? I like Cybraryman's terminology and examples, but a smackdown is basically a quick version of show and tell. I like them because they are fast-paced and offer a lot of resources from a lot of people in a short amount of time. They kind of remind me of those book reviews at the end of Reading Rainbow - just enough to whet your appetite and get you wanting more, but not too many where you feel overwhelmed or bored.

Inspired by the smackdown at EdCamp Seattle, I decided to try out a kid-version last Friday during our closing class meeting. In addition to a one-minute limit, we created the following ground rules:

  1. Be silently supportive and patient while a classmate is sharing (meaning, show attentiveness,  practice encouraging looks, and remember it can be scary to talk in front of a lot of people).
  2. Share something that is meaningful/helpful/important to you that you think others might be interested in, as well (meaning, this is not a bragging session).
  3. Keep the conversations going outside of class (meaning, if a classmate shared something really cool, ask them about it later).

Students shared favorite websites and apps, funny jokes, fun facts, book recommendations, stories and reports they were working on, pictures, and dance moves. The response was overwhelming, even from my shyest and most introverted students, and we decided to make it a thing.

I continually stress to my students that we're here to learn, take risks, and collaborate. A smackdown encompasses all those ideas and more. Last Friday's smackdown helped build classroom community and boost individual self-confidence, and I foresee this weekly event becoming something we all look forward to at the end of a busy week.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Adventures in Civic Duty!

Life has a funny way of telling you to shut up and slow down. For me, this message came in the form of six days of jury duty over the course of two-and-a-half weeks. Aside from feeling like I was trapped in a strange version of The Breakfast Club ("The lawyers saw us as they wanted to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions..."), it was surely an interesting and informative experience.  As an alternate juror I did not get to deliberate and was dismissed early. In all honesty, I'm a little bummed about that because I'm a person who tends to process things by talking them out. But, as I walked back to my car I reminded myself about the post I wrote on closure and decided to be okay with it. :)

Overall, jury duty was rough on me, despite a lovely view of Commencement Bay and 1.5 hour lunches. I'm not used to sitting all day or keeping quiet when something perturbs me. One would think it'd be a relaxing change of pace - and it was, for about one day. I found myself feeling stressed and anxious about being away from my classroom and generally annoyed at the slow pace of the trial. Needless to say, I'm thankful I could return to work today and get back to business as usual.

And, because I love to turn any experience into an educational one, here's a list of skills and strategies that I routinely teach and also observed in court:
  • walking in a straight line
  • telling the truth
  • letting one person talk at a time
  • being patient
  • listening to both sides of an argument without judgement
  • inferring
  • summarizing
  • drawing conclusions
  • determining an author's purpose
  • cause and effect
  • supporting an argument using text-based evidence
  • using persuasive writing techniques
  • SO MUCH MATH (addition, subtraction, multiplication, estimating, fractions, measurement, area, perimeter, constructing tables, elapsed time)
  • Measuring and recording data
  • Observing and describing results from an investigation
My case was about a large corporation upholding a warranty agreement on a failed product. In a nutshell (because I know you're curious), a local apartment complex sued Louisiana-Pacific for failed exterior siding. Thrilling, I know. The major points of debate were (1) the percentage of affected siding to the buildings, (2) whether or not an objective test was needed to determine if the siding was failing, and (3) should the Plaintif be awarded damages for having to replace the siding, which was still under warranty. Expert witnesses on the Plaintif's side used subjective tests and visual observations to determine the percentage of siding that was affected. As a counterpoint, the Defendant's witnesses used an objective and measurable test with strict criteria.

Around the third day, I realized how similar the arguments were to those currently being debated in education reform. Was the test subjective or objective? Who made the test in the first place? Could the results be measured over time and replicated? If one board was damaged, did that mean all of the boards were damaged? How did the outside environment affect the conditions of the siding? Did the witnesses possess enough knowledge and/or training to effectively state their opinions? Was there room for interpretation on the warranty? And so on...

If anything, six days of jury duty got me thinkin' out the current state of our educational system. When does a teacher's professional judgement overrule a students' measurable data on a test? What amount of training does a teacher need to have in order to be considered "qualified?" Does it make sense to look only at the measurable data of a standardized test when other factors are obvious to the naked eye? If a small group of students fails, does that mean the rest are doomed, as well? What role does a students' outside environment play in his or her outcome on a test. How much money is being spent on all of this?

I don't know the answers to these questions, nor am I even going to try to answer them. Clearly, you can see my brain was busy during my forced vacation civic duty. But, hey! At least I got this cool certificate:

Monday, November 19, 2012

EdCamp Seattle Recap

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. -Margaret Mead

The very first EdCamp Seattle was held at Seattle Pacific University this past Saturday. Not only did I have the pleasure of attending, I was fortunate enough to be a founding organizer with David, Jac, Anthony, Janiess, and Shannon. Initial planning started in late August through a series of tweets, and before long we were hashing out details using Google+ hangouts and shared documents.

G+ and Doodle made it easy for us to collaborate and plan.

You can read tweets and see pictures from the event here.

Having never attended an "unconference" before, I wasn't sure what to expect. Remembering my takeaways from ISTE '12, I knew that it was important for me to approach the day with a positive solution-oriented minset and a willingness to step outside my comfort zone. I attended sessions on design thinking and integrating math and literacy, and co-facilitated a conversation with my friend Jake on using Google Apps for Education in an elementary school setting. The day ended with a "smack-down" of resources shared by participants and a raffle in which I won a sweet new Microsoft backpack!

 Winning! Photo courtesy of @mshoughton
All in all, it was an incredible day of learning and connecting. I left feeling inspired, motivated, and energized. The conversations I had with others not only broadened my thinking, but encouraged me to deepen my practice and reassured me that there are other educators like me out there.  Like many others, I left wanting more. Even though I'm still trying to process everything, I'm pretty sure that this past Saturday was just the beginning of a really great organization of connected and forward-thinking educators.

Thank you to all who made the first EdCamp Seattle a smashing success! Perhaps we won't be able to totally change the world, but at least we can try to make our own significant impact.  

 Photo courtesy of @jcurtis4082

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In It For the Long Run: Thoughts on Student-Led Conferences

Preparing for student-led conferences is like training to run a marathon.  Both require weeks of preparation to endure the physical and mental demands of the experience, and there is often quite a bit of let-down when it's over. Having just finished our fall conferences, I'm feeling a mix of many things- proud that my students did a fantastic job sharing their learning, relieved that progress reports and Highly Capable Plans are finished, and energized by the conversations I had with parents regarding our program and classroom activities. The marathon metaphor keeps returning as I reflect upon my experiences. Here are some thoughts as I start to plan for the next round in Spring:

Wear the right shoes. You know that saying about walking a mile in someone else's shoes? This is an especially important reminder during conferences. Having the right perspective can make all the difference between a successful conference and an uncomfortable one. For me, I strive to make sure my "conference shoes" provide the right balance of support, professionalism, understanding, and humor for each family.

Each mile is a different experience. I have twenty-five wonderfully unique students in my classroom this year. Talking with my students' families (rather than at them) about successes and concerns continues to be one of the best and most enjoyable decisions I can make. Remembering each child is an individual with their own needs and passions makes conferences much more meaningful and productive. The journey is the reward, so take time to look around, appreciate your surroundings, and keep the conversations moving forward.

Don't focus on the numbers. While there's a time an place for student data, making it the primary focus is (usually) a bad idea. I give students the first 15 minutes to share anything they want in the classroom related to their learning. This year, every single student mentioned Dot Day, Mystery Skype, Google Apps for Education, and calendar math as activities in class that assisted in their learning. Students shared the book we created on our field trip as writing evidence, explained where their plant was in the life cycle, demonstrated how to record their fluency using an iPad, and showed how their art piece was related to geometry principles. They were excited about school, and you could tell! Rarely did we discuss AR points or the number correct on their last math quiz. Kids are not numbers, and it's important to keep the focus on student learning during conferences.

Be prepared for anything. I've had some strange things happen over the years. I've learned to keep the tissues nearby, call for help when you need it, know what to say if a student overshares, and have a few tricks up your sleeve to get nervous kids talking.

It helps to have people cheering you on. Take time to check-in with your colleagues and debrief. Remind your friend to eat lunch. Remind yourself to go to the bathroom while you can. Walk past a colleague's room to make sure things are going alright. Share a funny story that came up, or even talk through a conference that may have not gone so well. Similarly, when a parent tells you that you're doing an awesome job, say "thank you." Take the compliment because you're a rockstar. Finally, don't be afraid to tell a parent you think their child is wonderful and appreciate their support. Ask about a sibling you had years ago. Find out what their weekend plans are. Families need encouragement, too. When we all cheer each other on, the day seems a bit more bearable.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Family S.T.E.M. Night at the Castle

Traditions are a big deal at my school.  We sing beloved songs during assemblies, hard-working students are recognized at special knighting ceremonies, there are favorite field trips and grade-level holiday traditions, and many students look forward to being a "book buddy" with a partnering classroom.  Us teachers have our ways, too.  We willingly cram around a big round table in the staff room at lunch, even if it would be more comfortable to spread out.  There's also an annual "Christmas breakfast" and a White Elephant gift exchange at the staff party (there's one gift that's been passed around for over 10 years!).  We also have special community traditions, like the spring Renaissance Festival, that always draws a big crowd.  Another community event we host is Math Night.  Math night is always fun, but it was getting to be a bit lackluster with the same old stations year after year.  So, when I was given the task to coordinate the event, I knew it was time to shake things up!

The first step was to change the traditional math night to STEM night.  STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is not a well-known acronym at my school. This change not only broadened the types of activities we could feature, it served as a catalyst for great discussions  among teachers and parents regarding curriculum.  Students also began to notice how interrelated the fields really are.

The next step was to plan the activities.  The event was held on a Tuesday night for an hour.  Families used a "passport" to make their way around each station.  Passports were collected and placed into a drawing at the end of the night.  Three winners from each grade-level band were chosen.  All activities took place in the Gym/cafeteria and were chosen for their level of engagement, simplicity, and variety.  Game facilitators were given a page of directions, learning objectives, and talking points.  Some activities were messy, some were creative, some were loud, some were quiet, and some required lots and lots of brain power.  Most importantly, all were relatively simple in terms of supplies and were easily executable by both teachers and volunteers.  Here's a run-down of the events:

Students used cornstarch and water to explore properties of matter. 
Penny Lab
The classic "drops on a coin" experiment demonstrating water cohesion.

Color Exploration Mural/UV Beads
Students used the same marker on both white and black paper, noticing which colors worked best on each background. This was also my sneaky way to incorporate the arts.  The teacher who ran this station also gave away UV beads that changed color when exposed to sunlight.

Aluminum Foil Boats
Students first had to engineer a boat out of aluminum foil.  Next, they tested to see how many pennies their boat could hold before it sank.

Paper Airplanes
Students crafted paper airplanes using three different sizes of paper.  They were encouraged to explore how certain features like the nose, rudder, tails, or flaps change the flight pattern/quality of their aircraft. 

Wind-Powered Cars
Using only straws, life savers, paper, and paper clips, families created a small car and then competed against each other to see who's could go the furthest on a single puff of air.  This was by far one of the crowd favorites! 

Angry Birds
Sling shot, cardboard blocks, and two stuffed angry birds.  'Nuff said.  A definite favorite!

Playing Card Math Games
Families received a packet of math games they could play at home using either playing cards or dice.  Teachers demonstrated a few favorites we regularly use in the classroom.  The playing cards were donated to us by a local organization.

Math Strategy Games
Students learned the ancient games of Canoga and Poison.

Students explored shapes using Tangram sets (cut from craft foam) and several puzzles for families to solve.

M&M Math
Each child got a small bag of M&Ms and were asked to do simple computation problems with their candy, such as find the sum of reds and yellows. Students were also encouraged to explain the different fractions they could make using their M&Ms and also think of ways they could graph their results.

Estimation Station
We had four different estimation jars filled with fun things like little toys, cap erasers, candy, and goldfish crackers.

Digital Citizenship Information
I created a packet of information about Internet safety and digital citizenship to hand out using resources from Common Sense Media.

Other thoughts...

About two weeks before STEM night, my class delved into a persuasive writing unit. I had my students create media publications of their choice to promote the event and persuade others to attend.  It was a really fun way to assess this learning standard and my students loved being able to help me promote STEM night!  We ended up with several commercials/skits, posters, presentations, and morning announcements!  

It paid to be extra prepared.  I created direction sheets for each activity with talking points and leading questions for the facilitating teachers and volunteers.  I noticed many of the students using the academic language from the conversations with the facilitators throughout the night.  Teachers liked having something to refer to, and it also helped me keep organized in terms of supplies.  I also housed all supplies for each activity in their own clear tub.  This made set-up and clean-up quite painless and will make storing activities much easier.  This was a huge organizational feat for me!    

It may not be wise to plan such a large event on the same day as a field trip and the week of professional development and a big trip. Most of this was out of my control, but having so many things in one week through me off big time!

I've gotten lots of great feedback from the students, parents, and staff that attended.  It was totally worth the work that went into it, and I'm already scheming of ways to make it even more awesome for next year! 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Note to Self:

The time to relax is when you don't have time for it.
-Sydney J. Harris

I have an especially busy week ahead of me - class field trip, family math and science night, district professional development, and some other big events.  Not to mention grades, highly capable reports, conferences, and EdCamp Seattle are coming up in the next few weeks.  I spent all weekend trying to get ahead, but still feel incredibly behind.

I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed by all that still needs to be accomplished, but I promise that this week I will slow down.  I will unplug.  I will spend time with those I love.  

I will relax, even though I don't have time for it.     

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Dragon Project

Every day I find myself "kicking out" a small group of students who linger in my classroom at the start of morning recess.  While I love spending time with my students, I think it's important for them to have time away from the classroom to socialize, relax, and play.  Not to mention it's my time to run last-minute copies, grab some tea, use the restroom, and check in with my teaching partner. Very important stuff.

On Monday, two of my students - a boy and a girl - asked to stay in to work on a special project.  It's about dragons, they told me. And magical powers. And battling evil creatures.  It also involves extensive research and lots and lots of sticky notes.  Really, it's amazing, and I had to allow it.

I've watched them work every day this week during recess - reading side-by-side, consulting with one another, furiously taking notes, changing their minds as they go along, and getting excited by possibilities.  They are so engrossed in their collaboration, they rarely acknowledged my presence.  I admire their creativity, drive, and persistence to take on such a big project during their free time, and I've loved watching them work together this week.

Other students have been watching them, too.  They are curious as to the nature of the project and want to be a part of it.  They see that it's something special and part of something bigger.  For the time being, though, my two students have kept the dragon project to themselves.  It's meaningful and important work to them, and others just don't seem to fully get it. 

What I've realized watching this dragon project unfold is that no matter how old we are, we get emotionally attached to our big ideas.  We cling to them, nurture them, and fiercely protect them.  We want them to succeed, we want to see them through with other like-minded folks, and we want to make them our own.  Big ideas are successful when they've got the right combination of imagination and brain-power behind them.

The best part about all of this is that I'm not even sure my two students know where the dragon project is taking them. They are invested because they enjoy each other's company, share a similar passion, and work well together.  I'm confident it will change and grow over time, and perhaps it may even fizzle out.  Regardless, I think it's pretty darn amazing that I can learn so much from my students just by listening and observing them.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Perfect Fail

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that origami is the most stress-inducing activity I can do with elementary-aged students.  Origami not only demands excellent fine-motor skills, it requires that students are accurate, creative, and patient.  Sometimes kids get overwhelmed by the types of folds.  Sometimes it's the number of steps or the language of the directions.  Either way, when our class finished reading The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, I knew I was in for trouble.

After 30 minutes of "Is this right?" "How do I do that?" and "I can't do it," emotions in the room were running high.  There were crumpled pieces of paper everywhere and I could tell tears were just around the corner.  We took a deep breath, regrouped, and decided to table this activity for a homework choice.

During our closing reflection we discussed the various issues we were having while making our Origami Yodas:

  • The directions/illustrations were confusing
  • I wasn't folding the paper right
  • I wasn't folding the paper accurately
  • I wasn't getting the help I needed
  • I wasn't sure who to ask for help other than my teacher
  • I kept getting frustrated and lost patience
  • I kept getting frustrated and lost interest
  • I didn't follow the directions
  • I didn't understand how each fold related to the larger Origami Yoda
Depressed and defeated, we discussed how this activity relates to our lives as learners.  
  • We won't always get things right on the first try - FAIL is just our first attempt in learning.
  • It's okay to get frustrated when you're doing something challenging.  
  • A break is not the same as giving up.  
  • If something is confusing, seek clarification.  
  • In assisting others we learn more ourselves.  
  • Directions help us to be self-sufficient.  
  • It's important to take small steps forward yet still keep the bigger picture in mind
This conversation struck a chord with many of my students and I could feel the tension dissipate.  As we left for the day, we held up our pathetic-looking Yodas high above our heads and proudly declared failure.  Students left determined to try again, and to do better the next time.  It was wonderful to see them excited and energized from their failures.  

I was proud of their maturity and hard work that afternoon given such a difficult task, but it was the following day when I overheard one student say to another during math, "That was a perfect fail - I'm so proud of you!" when I knew those 30 minutes of frustration were all worth it.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Choose the Cone

Last night I watched this TedX video:

The basic premise is that at any given moment in your life, one hand is holding an ice cream cone while your foot is in dog poop. It's up to us to decide where our focus will be.

I'm glad I watched this video last night, because today was rough.  Things got off to a rocky start, and then got progressively worse as the day wore on.  Kids felt it.  I felt it.  Other teachers who walked into my room felt it.  By mid-afternoon, we were knee-deep in an open-ended math problem-solving activity that was causing a lot of frustration.  There were tears and angry outbursts.  Kids were giving up left and right.  Heck, even I wanted to throw in the towel.

And then I watched one of my students slyly place a pink sticky note on her upper lip with a perfectly drawn black curly mustache.  She continued to take notes and listen intently to our discussion.  Trying my best to ignore it and keep a straight face, I kept teaching.  A few moments later, I watched another boy at the same table place a sticky note mustache and goatee on his face.  Keep in mind, no other tables realized this was happening and both students continued to remain serious and studious.  I turned away to chuckle.  Coming back to address the class, I watched a third student place two bushy paper eyebrows on his forehead.  At this point, I pretended to drop my pen and doubled over laughing behind my computer cart. And, just when I thought I had fully composed myself, I looked up to see the fourth student at the table with her whole face covered by different colored sticky notes.

They chose the ice cream cone for me.  We had a good laugh and decided to put our math away for a bit. We took a walk through our school's community garden, took some photos for our science unit, and picked a healthy after-school snack.  The most important part was that we managed to make it through a rough day with a smile on our faces. Together.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Make Your Mark

International Dot Day was many things to me:
  • A chance to introduce my students to one of my favorite authors/illustrators, Peter H. Reynolds.
  • A starting point for many meaningful discussions with my students about overcoming fears, believing in yourself, and creative thinking.
  • An opportunity to collaborate with other educators and classrooms - in our school, across the district, and around the country.
  • A reason for students to work cooperatively to tackle complicated but amazing projects (including a video, several painting projects, writing pieces, and goal setting activities).
  • An excuse to throw an awesome party welcoming families into the classroom to celebrate student work, build community, and stress the importance of a strong home-school connection.
Dot Day not only encouraged my students to make their mark on the world, but helped me realize why I continue to make mine through teaching.  Thank you, Mr. Reynolds, for all you do for kids and teachers around the world.  You and the characters you create are truly inspirational.  

My copy of The Dot traveled 3,000 miles
to be signed by Peter Reynolds at
the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Weren't You Listening?

Every teacher knows how critical the first weeks of school can be.  Routines need to be established, classroom community needs to be built, and curriculum needs to be taught.  There's just a lot going on every second of the day.  So when I had to unexpectedly be out three days during the first week of school for a family emergency, you could say I was a little frazzled.  

On my return flight, I made two big mistakes going through security: I forgot to take off my belt, and I left my liquids in my carry-on.  Frustrated, the security officer snipped at me: "Weren't you listening?!"

I'm not a seasoned traveler, but I know the drill when it comes to navigating airport security lines.  I simply made these mistakes because it was a stressful trip and my mind was somewhere else.  I was embarrassed and hurt by the incident because I was already emotionally fragile and I didn't mean to make these silly mistakes in the first place.  I also didn't like being singled out for something I'm sure is a normal occurrence in the security line.   

I started to think about how often I've thought or said those words to my own students in frustration - weren't you listening?! - and the possible feelings I may have hurt because of it.

Perhaps those students weren't listening for a reason. Perhaps something stressful, sad, scary, or life-changing was going on in their lives. If only I would have asked them if everything was okay, rather than taken it personally.  The incident was a great reminder that we're not always at our best when we come to work or school, and that sometimes we make mistakes because there are bigger things on our minds.  

As this school year unfolds I want to strive to be perceptive and empathetic - to not be so wrapped up in the details and not let my authority as "the teacher" impact the dynamic of the classroom.  In those times of frustration, I hope to channel that moment in the airport, remembering that we're all fighting a hard battle and that the stories and experiences we bring to our classroom are what make it a special place to be. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

How to Sink an Orange

On the second day of school I presented my students with a bucket of water, an orange, and a problem to solve: get the orange to sink.  

The secret to this experiment is the peel.  Like a little life preserver, it is full of air pockets that make the orange float.  To sink the orange, just remove the peel.  It's almost too simple.  To shake things up and get the creative juices flowing, paper clips, tape, clay, string, and math counters were made available for students to use.  

This was a great beginning of the year activity because it combined science, inquiry learning, and team building.  Not only did students have to ask questions, test out hypotheses, and make adjustments, but they also had to listen to each others' ideas, compromise, and cooperate.  I also like this activity because it shows students that we can reach the same conclusion through many different pathways.  

One team started with paperclips and clay.  The paperclips, they rationalized, would weigh down the orange and the clay would hold the paperclips in place.  When that didn't work, they figured the paper clips were too light and something heavier was needed.  Math counters were added for additional weight and they tried again.  As they plopped the weighted orange into the water and watched it bob back up to the surface, I could tell the group was getting frustrated.  Both the paper clips and the counters sunk on their own, so how come they couldn't sink the orange?  
"It's impossible!" I heard one student say. "No, it's not! Let's not give up just yet," her teammate encouraged.    

After several more failed attempts to sink the orange by each group, I saw the light go on in one girl's eyes.  She motioned her team into a huddle and whispered, "It's the peel!"  They carefully tested their new theory, noticing that their orange sunk a little further the more they peeled.  Excited by their discovery, they quickly worked together and sunk the orange.  Other groups began to observe and modify their own designs as a result.

This activity led to great discussions on the importance of failure, the value of thinking creatively, and what to do when the tools we're using aren't working for us or are getting in our way.  Most importantly, this activity allowed students to have fun and get excited about their year in our classroom.  Many students mentioned to me with a devious smile that they were eager to conduct this experiment again at home.  Ultimately, this activity set the tone in our classroom.  It showed my students that learning can be messy and loud, working together can be rewarding, and we can learn a lot through wondering about the world around us and not giving up in challenging situations. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Summer of Mustaches

Mustaches have (oddly) had a reoccurring appearance in my life this summer.  First, there was the EduBros Mustache party at ISTE '12.  Then, this article in the Seattle Weekly coining the term "Ironic Mustache Syndrome."  And, just when I thought I was done with them, a friend recently told me about mustache-themed classroom decor.  All of this resulted in a running joke between my husband and I, which I have now turned into a classroom/PD "parking lot" sign.

My plan is to put it on 11 x 17, laminate, and hang in my classroom.  Students will use sticky notes to write questions while I'm busy working with other students (mainly during small groups/conferring).  I've found that having this space allows students who are working independently to come to me while cutting down on interruptions at the same time. Win-win!

I put the image in a Google Doc just in case you want to use it, too.  Snag it here.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Several recent conversations have gotten me thinking about energy's role in schools and the relationships we have with our colleagues and students. Every year I teach a science unit on the different forms of energy.  Early on, students learn three basic things:

  1. Energy is all around us.
  2. Energy does work/causes change.
  3. Energy cannot be created or destroyed - only changed.

I had a busy week attending district retreats, serving on an interview committee, planning professional development, and continuing to prepare instructional activities.  While I'm incredibly excited for students to return, I love the time I spend with my colleagues this time of year.  We are relaxed, refreshed, and optimistic. There's a lot of good energy all around us, and I thrive on it.    

As a result of this collective positive energy, good things happen.  We work together to collaborate on projects, have engaging conversations regarding school culture, and help each other realize the awesome potential a new school year brings.  We are productive and happy educators ready to tackle any obstacle that comes our way.

And then something happens.

I'm not sure when, where, or why, but ultimately, there's a shift from good energy to...not so good energy.  You know what I'm talking about because we've all been there.  This negative energy can pervade a school culture like an infectious disease.  Teachers stop collaborating, snarky comments infuse themselves into conversations, and general unhappiness abounds.  Students and families begin to pick up on it, and it's definitely not a good thing.

What changed?  Why did it change?  How were we, as individuals, responsible for that change?  Can positive energy eventually reemerge?

I implore you to think back to those three basic properties of energy and remember the following during those endless staff meetings, while collaborating with difficult colleagues, or when working in challenging situations over the course of the next school year:

  1. Energy is all around us.  We all are responsible for the energy we bring into a situation or relationship. It's up to us to harness it in a positive and productive way.
  2. Energy creates energy.  Your mindset has a direct effect on the surrounding environment, as well as your relationships with colleagues, students, and families.  
  3. Energy cannot be created or destroyed - only changed.  You have to work with the energy already existing within your organization, but that doesn't mean it can't change or continue to get better. Take a step back.  Try to see a different perspective.  Keep that catty comment to yourself, or better yet, turn a negative comment into a positive one.  If you don't like the energy you're feeling, work to change it.
As I (officially) head back to staff meetings next week, I hope to keep that good energy flowing by being cognizant of what I'm transmitting and how I react to others.  We hold great power in our hands as educators, touching the lives of students and colleagues each day (often unknowingly).  We must remember that our energies are all connected, important, and vital to the success of our schools. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Classroom Set-Up Day 5

The first dragon has been slain - I have conquered the Great Classroom Set-Up of '12.

I feel great starting the school year knowing that every cabinet and classroom space has a purpose and is completely organized and tidy.  It was time consuming and I had to give up a few days of my summer vacation, but completely worth it.  I am confident that clearing out the clutter will allow me to focus on the more important stuff during the school year rather than endlessly searching for missing items or weeding through unused stuff.

Today's first task was to fix the computer cables, because,'s just embarrassing (and probably a hazard of some sort):

Remember those lime green curtains I found smooshed behind some dictionaries on Day 2?  Turns out, they came in handy to hide this ugly mess of cords.  After taking everything apart and making all the cords look nice (you'll have to trust me on this one...), I used Velcro squares to attach one of the curtain panels to the desk.  To finish it off, I lowered the legs on a large table and placed it in front of the media cart.  I'm envisioning lots of collaborative iPad projects, writing conferences, and math games going on here.  So much nicer!

The meeting area is still a little unkempt, but has the makings of a great learning space.  Once I get the chairs out of the way, I know it'll come together quickly. This space is where we do morning meeting, calendar math, and whole group mini-lessons.  The biggest change I'm making this year is going rug-less.  I have never had a rug last more than one year, so I've decided just forgo it (even if it does tie the room together).  I've purchased several small stools from IKEA for students to use during lessons and independent reading.
At the end of the day I sat down to write an epic to-do list...feeling thankful I still have a few weeks left!

Thank you for joining me on this journey this week!  Stay tuned for more back to school fun in the coming weeks!    


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Classroom Set-Up Day 4

  Day four's victories:
  • Put this poster up on the window


  • One neat and tidy filing cabinet
  • Boxes broken down and ready to go back into basement storage
  • Last box of random stuff eliminated (how did I get so many paperclips?!)
  • Labels printed and placed on Sharpies ready to be shared!
  • Math games cut and ready to be laminated (it only took me three years...)
  • Helped a friend set up his classroom at a neighboring school! 


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Classroom Set-Up Day 3

After yesterday's chaotic cleaning spree, I needed a quieter day to sort, organize, and pretty-up my room.  My colleagues have been floating in and out of the building all week, so it's been fun to balance an unpleasant task with great hallway conversations.

One of my original goals was to re-sort and condense two three-drawer storage units into one.  I like having a place to put frequently used supplies and equipment, but I realized last year that I wasn't frequently using those supplies.  My attempts at organization were really just weighing me down!  And I just don't need six junk drawers in my life.  

This is what six junk drawers looks like.

Having just read Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, I decided to turn this task into a game.  I turned on some music, set the timer, and went to work!  Since I was working for speed, I employed the "dump-everything-out-and-quickly-decide-what-to-do-with-it" method.  The end result is all kinds of awesome.  The top drawer holds office supplies, the middle drawer has stickers and hall passes, and the bottom has all my techie gear.  Total time: 22 minutes. 

This was only two drawers...

So much better!
The next project was to find homes for all the books that were either waiting to be shelved or needed to be put back into the correct bin.  I also checked to make sure each book and bin had matching stickers to make returns easy for our classroom librarians.  This is a tedious process, but absolutely necessary for me to keep track of 2,000+ books!

Dictionaries + 2 cases nonfiction + 2 cases fiction picture books
Series chapter books, poetry, and drawing books
(the top shelf is waiting to be filled with graphic novels -
I know I am seriously lacking in this department!)
General fiction chapter books

And to complete the library, I put up the gallery wall of fun quotes.  I have plans for the empty space on the right involving a greeting card I found with some cute seahorses on it.

And that's what I accomplished on day three!  Tomorrow's plan is to go through my filing cabinet and make some math games.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Classroom Set-Up Day 2

Today was about problem solving.  I decided to focus on the back wall of my classroom because it was the area that needed the most attention. 

Problem #1: Storage area

This space is in a prime location in the room, but has always been overlooked.  I wanted to make it more accessible and useful for my students.   It was full of old, unused dictionaries, encyclopedias, and a set of lime green curtains (why?!).  Also, my goodie bag and table baskets ended up vacationing here over summer break.  

After some thinking, I thought this might be a better place for all of my rainy day recess games.  I weeded out the usable dictionaries and moved them over to the library.  Then, the games moved in.  I think it looks pretty good!
Problem #1 solved!

Problem #2: Under the sink storage

Need some old dried up watercolors, crusty paintbrushes, almost-finished bottles of glue, plastic bags, or really old cleaning supplies?  Yeah, me neither.  My sink area was just plain nasty and needed a good overhaul. 

Problem #2 solved!

Problem #3: teacher resource area

This area of my classroom houses all of my curriculum, student files, and frequently used personal resources.  I keep my favorite read alouds and nicer, oversized picture books on the tall bookshelf. This is also where rainy day recess materials used to live.  I had spent a lot of time here last summer, so this was more a case of tidying up and weeding out/putting away resources I don't use very often or no longer need.  

Problem #3 solved!

Before school starts, I'm going to put a curtain up to hide the upper shelves.  Since my students don't use any of that stuff, they don't need to look at it.  

The last thing I did was set up my mementos area.  I know it looks a little tacky, but I can't help but smile whenever I look here.  Each object is tied to an unforgettable student or has an awesome story.  We all need those things in our lives to remind us why we keep going.

Tomorrow I'm hoping to work in the library and meeting area. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Classroom Set-Up Day 1

I'm setting up my classroom this week, and I thought it'd be fun to document and share the process.  

Here's what I walked into at 8 A.M.:

The four most important areas in my classroom are the meeting area, classroom library, student tables, and small group area.  Today's game plan focused on tackling the classroom library and student tables, as well as making sure things were generally where they needed to be.

After shoving the bookshelves back into the corner, I was able to get most of the books back into a bin on a shelf.  Last year's students organized the library really, really well before the end of the school year.  I am thankful for their hard work because it made my life a lot easier today.  There are still books everywhere that need stickers and sorting, but that can get done later.  I'm also thinking of purchasing two more shelves.

Next, I managed to spread the tables out so I can imagine students living here. I'm betting the table placements will change no less than 17 times by the end of August, but at least it's a start!   

Finally, I put all the random things like school supplies and plastic bins where they'll be easy for me to sort through and put away later this week.

By the end of the day, I had this (and a new to-do list!):

Next up: tidy up my teacher resources and the dreaded under-the-sink cabinets (not pictured)...

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Favorite Beginning of the Year Read Alouds

While I still have a month until I'm back with students, I'm starting to get organized and ready for the start of school.  I've found that it's usually best to start with a story, so here are a few of my favorite beginning of the year read alouds.

Picture Books:
The Awesome Book - Dallas Clayton

This guy is easily becoming my new favorite person.  I love the message behind his words and the simplicity of his poetry.

Officer Buckle and Gloria - Peggy Rathmann

I use this book to spark a discussion on classroom safety and expectations for the classroom community.

Paulie Pastrami Achieves World Peace - James Proimos

Can kids change the world?  You bet! I often use this book as a set up for a Socratic Seminar-esque discussion - "can world peace be achieved through cupcakes?"  Afterwards, I have teams work together to make a batch of cupcakes.

Because Brian Hugged His Mother - David Rice

Actions matter and we are all connected, so be nice.

Do Unto Otters -  Laurie Keller

We're all here for the same purpose.  So, again, be nice.

It's Okay to be Different - Todd Parr

One of my all-time favorites celebrating individuality.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy - Oliver Jeffers

Room 106 is full of voracious readers!

The New Girl...and Me - Jaqui Robbins

An especially good read as friendships start to change in 2/3rd grade and kids aren't always sure how to deal with it.

Squids Will be Squids - Jon Scieszka

This guy is brilliant and another favorite author of mine.  Just a nice little collection of modern fables kids really like.

Oh, The Thinks You Can Think - Dr. Seuss

Think big!

Thank You, Mr. Falker - Patricia Polacco

Great book for students who've struggled in learning.  I cannot get through this book without crying at the end.  Never ever.

Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon - Patty Lovell

Awesome message on self-confidence!

Horton Hatches the Egg - Dr. Seuss

Good to use when discussing qualities of excellent citizenship. "I meant what I said and I said what I meant.  An elephant's faithful one hundred percent."

Chapter Books:
Sideways Stories From Wayside School - Louis Sachar

I've started this book on the first day of school with my students for the past 5 years.  Kids (and teachers) can easily connect to the characters, however silly they may be.  A great community builder, for sure.

Ramona Quimby, Age 8 - Beverly Cleary

Who doesn't love Ramona?!  Cleary accurately captures the different emotions an 8 year old can feel towards his or her family, friends, and teachers.


The First Day of School - Judith Viorst
We all have first day jitters :)

Whatifs - Shel Silverstein
Getting all those worries down on paper helps them to disappear.

Helping - Shel Silverstein
I'm thinking this might pair well with Because Brian Hugged His Mother.

Did I miss any? What are your favorites?